Wagman Observatory marks 25 years of showcasing the night sky

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In the 1989 movie "Field of Dreams," Kevin Costner's character, an Iowa farmer, hears a voice in a cornfield that leads him to construct a baseball field where his crops once grew.

Tom Reiland, director of Nicholas E. Wagman Observatory operated by the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh, didn't hear any such message when he first came across the hilltop in Deer Lakes Park where the observatory now stands. Nor does he expect ghosts of early astronomers to turn on the telescopes and start searching the skies -- at least we hope.

But he does admit to similar feeling to those of Mr. Costner's character when the dream took flight on the picturesque two-acre bluff with an unobstructed view of the stars.

"This was a cornfield," he said. "Much like the movie, this became our 'Field of Dreams.' "

This month, the association, a 400-member group that owns and operates the Frazer observatory, celebrates the facility's 25th anniversary.

From meager beginnings, when 25 guests attended the first star party, the observatory has grown astronomically to become a regional fixture that has served more than 56,000 people.

This weekend, association members whose mission is to educate people of all ages about the heavens, will host star parties on Friday and Saturday at dusk, when the astronomers will gather to share their understanding of the cosmos with untrained eyes through two large fixed telescopes.

The evenings, just before the first-quarter moon, will offer opportunities to observe the moon, Mars, Saturn, and areas in the constellation Sagittarius, where the rich center of our Milky Way Galaxy lies. There will be other impromptu astronomical treats.

Mr. Reiland, a former senior observer at the Allegheny Observatory in Riverview Park on the North Side, said many members had doubts that the observatory would stay afloat in the first few years, let alone reach a quarter century. He joined the organization in 1974 and became president a year later.

"At the time, I thought what this club needs is its own observatory," he said. "It wasn't accepted well by the old-timers. They just didn't think it would happen."

In some instances, the naysayers were right to have concerns. Allegheny County officials hesitated to lease the land and it took more than a decade to raise the $25,000 necessary to erect a concrete building with two rooms in 1986. Donations rarely exceeded $100.

With one 12.5-inch reflector donated by Carnegie Mellon University, the observatory was dedicated and opened in June 1987.

And as with many dreams, achievement came in steps.

Seven years after opening, the Brashear 11-Inch Refractor -- a telescope built in 1910 by famous optician and amateur astronomer John Brashear for Carnegie Technical School and Andrew Carnegie to view Halley's Comet -- was refurbished.

A few years later, a wing was added to house the Brashear refractor. Later, a new 21-inch telescope, called the Manka Memorial Reflecting Telescope, was dedicated.

Upgrading equipment provided a greater opportunity to observe as light gathering capability has now tripled from the time of the 1987 dedication.

It was through the Manka telescope that Mr. Reiland acchieved one of the group's most memorable accomplishments. In 2011, he became among the first to discover a supernova in M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy.

"Some people don't realize that everything is not about computers or video cameras," he said. "Astronomy is much like music -- it's so much better live."

In some ways, the observatory has transcended its purpose. The facility has played host to a birthday party, and a wedding. But important celestial events, such as comets, have attracted as many as 1,500 guests at a time for observation.

The association consists mostly of men, but there are many women active in the club, too. From time to time, new members join, often looking for help operating their new telescopes, and the organization hopes that more young people come on board in the future.

"It's something that we've just grown up with and it's a part of you," said member Bill Yorkshire of Plum. "We want to share that and get younger members involved."

This weekend, two beginner's telescopes will be raffled. As with all events hosted by the association, admission is free and all are welcome.

"You can promise your date the moon and the stars and actually come through," Mr. Reiland said.

To learn more, call 724-224-2510 or visit www.3ap.org.

neigh_north - science

Taryn Luna: tluna@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1985. First Published June 21, 2012 4:00 AM


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